Haas Struggles to Refocus
By SELENA ROBERTS
With years of unfulfilled expectations behind him, Tommy Haas was playing in the kind of deep, pure groove reserved for vinyl records.
As this summer approached, he was beating everyone — elite players, hot newcomers — and his ranking on the men's tennis tour hit No. 2. Even the skeptical German public was starting to embrace Haas after years of mourning the retirements of Boris Becker and Steffi Graf.
On June 8, just as everything was coming together, Haas received a phone call from his girlfriend. She was screaming and crying as Haas tried to make sense of her jangled emotions. Suddenly, it registered. She was driving down a street in Sarasota, Fla., and heard a horrible screech. When she looked across the road, she saw two people lying motionless on the pavement with a mangled motorcycle beside them.
They were Haas's parents. And it was the Harley-Davidson he had bought for his father. Neither Peter nor Brigitte Haas was wearing a helmet when the motorcycle collided with a truck.
"My girlfriend was crying and all I heard was that there was a motorcycle accident," Haas, a Florida resident, said last week. "Right away, I knew it was my parents. At that moment, my head froze."
Forget Wimbledon. Forget everything. For two weeks, Haas sat next to his father's hospital bed, wondering if the man who first took him on a tennis court at age 4 would wake up from a coma. His mother's injuries were minor in comparison, but she was emotionally frayed.
It was Haas's turn to take care of his parents. For six weeks, he left the Tour until his parents were well enough to return to their home in Germany. In late July, Haas came back to tennis, but the player who will try to defend his title in the Hamlet Cup on Long Island this week is not the same carefree player he was in the spring.
Understandably, Haas has been distracted, unable to reach beyond the semifinals in his first four events since returning. Twice, he has been upset in the first round.
"I'm thinking about them all the time," said Haas, whose ranking has slipped to No. 3. "My dad has a long road ahead. He has some severe problems with his leg and some damage to his brain. It's going to take him time to get on track again. He's starting to talk again. Obviously, he's not back to the way he used to be and probably never will. But they're both alive, and I thank God for that."
At age 24, Haas did not need the incident to find maturity. Prompted by his success on Long Island a year ago, when he defeated Pete Sampras in the final, Haas was already on his way to taking a more serious approach to his career.
"I think some people are made for the game, and some people have to work at it," Haas said. "No question about it, I have a lot of talent for the game, but when my mind didn't go with my talent, nothing really came out of it. I'm an impatient person. It doesn't mean I'm not a nice guy, but I would lose my patience in the past, and that doesn't really happen anymore."
For most of this season, he was locked into an easy rhythm on the court. His swashbuckling, one-handed backhand — branded one of the game's best by Marat Safin — was confounding one opponent after another. In May, Haas allowed Andy Roddick only 10 points in the first set of a straight-sets victory. Roddick said he had not been that overwhelmed since he played in an 8-and-under tournament.
Swiftly, Haas was breaking out of the stereotype often slapped on tennis academy prodigies. Often, those players are said to have the mechanical skills but not the court savvy. Although Haas was experiencing some shoulder problems by late spring, he was on the verge of proving that image wrong when the accident occurred. Until then, Haas had made a lot of progress toward a breakthrough after reuniting with his former coach, David Ayme, last year.
"A lot of people tell you to do this or that, hire this coach or that one," Haas said. "After a while, you stop believing people. I went to what I knew."
For six months, winning was Haas's priority. While he still wants to win, match point does not carry the same significance. Before his parents' accident, Haas would go into hiding after a tough match. Talking to no one, he would retreat to his hotel room, turn on CNN and start brooding.
"I'd want to see what was happening around the world," he said, "but I'd still keep asking myself: `Why am I so frustrated? It's just a tennis match.' Now, I think about other things. Right now, I just want my parents to be O.K."
"Ferrero's going to be a tough one for anybody. This guy is the real deal already. He's got a chance at going a long, long way. This guy could be the best Spanish player ever; that's saying something." - John McEnroe, June 2000